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Manifest destinies : the making of the Mexican American race

by Laura E Gómez

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Ambitious, Engaging, and Lacking Nuance   (2009-03-24)


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by robert_borneman

Laura Gómez' work on "The Making of the Mexican American Race" is an effort to engage law, sociology and history (7 - 8) in an effort to create "a coherent national story to be told about Mexican Americans." (8) Her efforts, however, to use New Mexico's history as a focal point through which such a broader (and not localized) narrative can be created falls apart, in part due to her failure to address the very historical and regional variation which she seeks to subsume in her larger vision. Her weakness in familiarity with regional variation (i.e. Texas and California) and historical antecedents (in the Spanish colonial period) limit her ability to make effective arguments. 

Gómez fails to explore the different modes of Spanish-colonial interactions with Indians on the frontier of the empire, assuming, rather, a somewhat monolithic and oversimplified narrative of the "brutality of Spanish Colonialism towards Indians" (79). In overly broad and simplistic assertions such as: "both the Spanish and American colonial enterprises were grounded in racism" (10) she falls into the well-worn recapitulation of the Black Legend, neatly reiterating her North American academic predecessors' (white, English, and Protestant) views of the Spanish-Catholic imperial enterprise. 

Gómez employs an ambiguous (alternating between synonymous and dichotomous) use of the terms "native" and "Mexican". In describing Ignacia Jaramillo's race, Gómez describes her as both "Mexican" and "a native woman" in the same sentence (24), leaving her readers to ponder what distinctions Gómez makes, if any, between New Mexico Indians and Mexican mestizos (both of which she conflates in her accounts of the Santa Fe and Taos uprisings of 1847). Rather than use her subject's own self-definition, she coins terms to describe them e.g. "off-white" (84). Gómez imposes her own (anachronistic) vocabulary on her subjects, failing to explore the ways in which they might have described themselves in their own voices. 

She does provide us with some fascinating points for discussion and further investigation. Her passages on Estevan (48 - 50), Lebaron Bradford Prince (64 - 71), and the impact of Scott vs. Sanford (133 - 135) reveal her at her best: exposing the complexities and messiness of the historical period. It is when she retreats from historical messiness and complexity to a more stereotypical vision of "aggressors versus victims" that her work undermines itself. When she interrogates categories (state citizenship vs. federal citizenship) her work starts to become illuminating (42 - 44) until she shies away from explaining the critical difference between federal privileges and immunities versus "political rights" (44); she utterly neglects to explain why such differences had been legislated as early as the 1777 U.S. Articles of Confederation. 

While her efforts (towards revealing the way in which Mexican American racial formation could have developed in New Mexico in the 19th century) are laudable, Gómez' scholarship remains handicapped by her unfamiliarity with the Spanish colonial era, her reliance on anachronistic terminology, and her inability to explore comparative developments in other regions.

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